Louise Smith’s husband was diagnosed with cancer when their second child was just five weeks old. He died just after her first birthday four years ago. A day or two before he died Louise started getting calls from credit card companies. Her husband had defaulted on some payments because he had been in a hospice. Louise told the companies he was dying and asked if they could write to her. She then entered into what she calls a “loop of hell” where she was constantly being rung by credit card companies.
Her husband came home from the hospice and died within 24 hours. Just half an hour later his sister took a call from a credit card company asking for him. She told them her brother had died and gave them details. It didn’t stop the calls for Mr Smith coming. It wasn’t just the amount of calls that was upsetting, but the fact that none of the callers registered any empathy for Louise’s situation as a widowed mum of a one and three year old.
She asked to speak to the callers’ supervisors. In the end, she fired off an email to the chief executive of one of the companies at 3am explaining what was happening. He replied by 5am, apologising and saying he would work things out. “He was horrified,” says Louise. She has since met him and he immediately donated money to a charity of her choice and began using her example in training programmes. The whole system at his company changed to focus more on customer satisfaction than just collecting money.
It was not the only company though and Louise had trouble with several others as well as with her husband’s bank and mobile phone company. She wrote to one of her husband’s pension companies enclosing his death certificate and they wrote back a letter addressed to Mr Smith, for instance. Her father had died just before her husband and, four years on, her mother still gets letters addressed to him. “They don’t seem capable of joining up all their systems,” says Louise.
She got in touch with Widowed and Young, an organisation for men and women aged 50 or under when their partner died, and found that what happened to her was not unusual. “People are at their most vulnerable at this time and it is hard to challenge these things,” she says. “Emotionally I could only handle three calls in a day. There is a big emotional impact each time you have to explain the situation.” However, Louise, who has set up her own blog on managing corporate grief, was determined to challenge the system and ensure companies had a proper bereavement policy, and not just for their customers.
Cruse got in touch with her when it heard about what she had done with the credit card company and she has since met with other credit card companies and spoken to heads of corporate responsibility to learn what they have done since. Louise plans to continue this work and to tackle other businesses, such as banks, and says there is a strong business driver to get bereavement policy right because they will lose custom if they don’t. “A lot of bereaved people inherit money and have money to invest, but if they get how they handle bereavement wrong they will lose those customers,” she says.
Louise has also been involved with Acas’ Bereavement in the Workplace Guidelines, which launched last September, and with campaigning for more formal standards of bereavement leave with Cruse who have developed a toolkit for employers and training courses. Louise says she has heard of terrible cases from complete lack of empathy from managers to a lack of planning to help manage a person’s return to work. For instance, she says she spoke to one person who went to his brother’s funeral and his boss asked when the funeral was. The man said it was at 11am and the boss said he expected him back in the office by 1pm.
“Bereavement leave policy is very dependent on the company,” she says. “Employers need to understand what the employee needs and not base their judgement on what they perceive to be the closeness of the relationship with the deceased person. What they surely don’t want is for their employees to feel totally abandoned and find it hard to go back to work and then leave the company.”
She adds that the problem is that it is all down to how a first or second line manager handles it, which means there is a lack of consistency in how policy is enforced. Hence the need for the Acas guidelines and for greater training of managers. “We don’t like talking about death. People would literally cross over the road to avoid talking to me, but a line manager’s attitude can make all the difference,” says Louise. She cites the case of one of her former managers when she used to work at IBM. Her manager was diagnosed with terminal cancer on maternity leave. Because her sickness leave had expired and her cancer was terminal, IBM put her on sabbatical leave so she could have an income and her benefits remained intact. “That was all down to her line manager. It wasn’t standard policy,” says Louise. “Finances are the last thing you want to worry about, especially if you have young children.”